ISEE has developed a framework to help our community define “What is inquiry?” The framework includes six elements that ISEE considers essential to inquiry, in particular in a STEM higher education and workplace environment. Participants in ISEE programs use these elements to design, teach, and assess an inquiry learning experience (or “activity”). The elements are: 

Cognitive STEM practices

Within ISEE, we use the phrase “cognitive STEM practices” to describe the reasoning processes that scientists and engineers use to understand the natural world and solve problems. Broad examples include generating explanations, designing experiments, or defining requirements. Practices (which in the literature are sometimes called processes, competencies, reasoning skills, etc.) are emphasized in essentially all STEM education standards and are highly valued in the STEM workforce because they enable an individual to adapt to new technology and become a more independent investigator and problem-solver. However, these practices are difficult to teach, and are rarely taught formally in the classroom. Within ISEE, a well-designed inquiry activity may engage learners in many STEM practices, but there is an explicit focus on one practice so that learners will be challenged with it and be able to apply it to a new context, and can be assessed by the instructor.

Core concepts

All STEM fields have core concepts -- concepts that have broad explanatory power and are tied to “big ideas.” These core concepts are the ideas that an instructor wants students to be able to apply when faced with a new problem, or a puzzling phenomenon. In ISEE’s definition, a well-designed inquiry activity has an intended learning outcome that includes using a core concept to explain a phenomenon or design a solution. As ISEE participants design an inquiry activity, they are charged with identifying an important core concept, and what it means for learners to demonstrate a deep understanding of that concept – an understanding that will enable the learner to apply it in a new context. Core concepts are often easily stated, for example “light travels in a straight line,” but may be challenging for learners to apply. ISEE participants plan for the varied backgrounds of their learners, anticipate potential misconceptions and/or non-intuitive aspects of the concept, and are prepared to facilitate learners in constructing their own way of understanding the concept.

Intertwined concepts and practices

In ISEE’s definition of inquiry, learners’ engagement in cognitive STEM practices is motivated by conceptual understandings; core concepts are learned by engaging in practices. As in authentic research or engineering design, STEM practices are employed to learn or design something. A well-designed ISEE inquiry activity includes a “starter” that raises “how” or “why” questions related to a core concept, and that can be further addressed by engaging in STEM practices. Learners then investigate or design something to learn about their question – specifically to learn about the core concept. Content and practices are intertwined throughout, and the three main phases of the activity (starter, investigation, and explanation) are linked.

Mirroring authentic research and design

An ISEE inquiry activity reflects authentic research and/or engineering design, concentrating on the subtle and challenging practices of scientists and engineers and the way that they use them in their actual work. For example, an inquiry activity on marine ecology could focus on the cognitive practice of generating a scientific explanation, giving students experience with the particular types of evidence used in this field, and the ways that marine ecologists use evidence in their authentic research. In addition, there are particular norms, values, and ways of thinking in STEM. For example there are particular norms for giving feedback or asking questions during presentations. A learning experience that makes these aspects of STEM explicit and/or gives students practice with them builds their competency in STEM and helps them to become part of the STEM community.

Ownership of learning

A key component of ISEE’s definition of inquiry includes ownership of learning, both in relation to a STEM practice and to conceptual understanding. For a learner to have ownership there must be choice and opportunities for figuring out one’s own path to understanding. 
An ISEE inquiry activity provides multiple possible pathways to understanding core concepts and multiple ways to engage in practices. ISEE participants are charged with the difficult task of designing and teaching an activity that has very specific intended learning outcomes, yet has multiple entry points, ways to investigate or design something, and solutions or ways to explain one’s findings. While teaching, ISEE participants facilitate learning in a way that maintains learners’ ownership, without simply giving them answers or instructions. They employ strategies that help them understand how a learner is thinking about or approaching a problem, and model collaboration that respects and embraces the diverse ways that learners work and learn.

Explaining using evidence


Supporting explanations with evidence is at the heart of science and engineering. Scientists use evidence to generate explanations, and engineers use evidence to support design choices. Constructing scientific explanations (or “arguments”) is part of formal scientific communication, as well as the informal daily practices of scientists and engineers. They use explanations to make sense of things, justify their actions, or persuade others of the importance of their results. In a well-designed inquiry activity, learners have many opportunities to employ evidence as they express their ideas. An inquiry activity designed by ISEE participants includes a culminating activity (e.g. reporting findings through a poster presentation) in which learners use evidence to describe their findings.